Key point: EMPs could maybe take out some of the electric grid, but the impact is wildly unknown. In fact, even during the Cold War the impact of EMPs as a not-well-studied byproduct of nuclear tests was incredibly varied.
Few weapons are as scary as those that exist only in our minds.
A few years ago when the Republican Party released its platform to the public in the run-up to its national convention at the tail end of a section titled “America Resurgent,” GOP leaders detailed what they felt is a looming threat of America — electromagnetic pulses.
“A single nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude over this country would collapse our electrical grid and other critical infrastructures and endanger the lives of millions,” the platform stated. “With North Korea in possession of nuclear missiles and Iran close to having them, an EMP is no longer a theoretical concern — it is a real threat.”
But it’s not.
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The problem with fear over electromagnetic weapons is that it forgets two simple facts. First, generating enough juice to cause a significant amount of damage is really hard. Second, a country dealing with busted electronics after an EMP assault is a country fighting a nuclear war.
“EMP is the new test case of seriousness in national security,” cyber security expert Peter W. Singer tweeted after reading the platform. “But not in the way advocates not in on the joke think.”
I reached out to Singer and, after a brief pause to make sure I was serious, he pounced. “There’s this irony of the people who think it’s serious not realizing that they’re the joke,” he explained. “When you walk through the actual scenarios of use, it doesn’t pass the logic test.”
An electromagnetic pulse following a nuclear blast is a real thing. The problem is that the process of creating an EMP big enough without the devastation of a nuclear warhead is expensive, absurd and not worth the effort. That’s if it even works.
For that, we can’t recommend enough a 2010 series of articles in The Space Review by Yousaf M. Butt, a physicist currently serving as a foreign affairs officer in the State Department’s Space and Advanced Technology office.
“For a large device (greater than 100 kilotons) …. the whole region on the Earth’s surface which is within line-of-sight to the high-altitude explosion will experience the EMP pulse,” he wrote.
Which sounds scary, but there are several important caveats. The higher you detonate a nuclear device, the greater the blast radius. However, the effect of the EMP will be less. Likewise, the smaller the explosive yield, the smaller the EMP and the closer the blast will need to be to the ground to be effective.
Finding that detonation sweet-spot in the Earth’s atmosphere will take countless tests … which no one has done.
The blast Butt described above, one that knocks out the entire electrical system on roughly half the Earth’s surface, could only come from a high-yield thermonuclear warhead attached to an ICBM. So, engaging in the fantasist view, a nuke from Russia or China.
Setting aside the geopolitical gymnastics that must occur to lead to that kind of exchange, if a foreign power detonated a 100 or more kiloton in an electromagnetic attack on America, then the world is at war and there’s little strategic benefit for the aggressor to not just go ahead and nuke a city.
“It doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” Singer told me. “But if the other side is using EMPs we’re moving into thermonuclear war.”
“A weapon of mass destruction is preferable to a weapon of mass disruption,” Butt explained. “A state would be highly unlikely to launch an EMP strike from their own territory because the rocket could be traced to the country of origin and would probably result in nuclear or massive conventional retaliation by the U.S.”
Let’s say the EMP does go off in space above North America. According to the worst case scenario, the attack would fry the Pentagon’s electronics, leaving the U.S. military unable to retaliate.
However, we don’t know what the effects of an EMP might be. Studies conducted by both the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War produced dramatically different results every time.
An electromagnetic pulse is a highly unpredictable side effect of a predictably horrifying weapon. “It’s not a weapon we’ve seen past use of. Ever. Literally ever. Nor tests of,” Singer said.
Some countries have attempted to weaponize EMPs in fits and starts, but it remains a byproduct of other weapons systems, including cruise missiles as well as nukes. The idea of North Korea or Iran using a small-yield nuclear device in low atmosphere fails for the same reasons. North Korea can barely manage to cobble together a crude one-kiloton bomb, let alone a device large enough to do significant damage to U.S. infrastructure.
“Serious long-lasting consequences of a one-kiloton EMP strike would likely be limited to a state-sized region of the country,” Butt explained.
“Although grid outages in this region may have cascading knock-on effects in more distant parts of the country, the electronic devices in those further regions would not have suffered direct damage, and the associated power systems far from the EMP exposed region could be re-started.”
So nuclear state actors, both mighty and minor, are out. But what about terrorists? Isn’t it possible for the bad guys to get enough fissile material and construct a bomb?
“Any weapon produced by a terrorist cell would likely be a one of a kind and would have to remain untested. For a terrorist group to then mate this weapon to a ballistic missile and successfully carry out an EMP strike beggars belief,” Butt wrote.
Singer agrees. “But let’s just imagine terrorists somehow get them,” he said. “So, they’re sitting in their cave deciding on their attack. ‘We can either use our nuclear weapon in a completely untested manner, that we don’t know if it will even work, nor the exact damage it will cause, or we can just turn Washington D.C. into a molten mess.’”
“They finally get their dream of dreams, and that’s when they decide to use it in an untested manner that would kill less people … what?”
EMPs are laughable, but the threat of nuclear annihilation is not. It’s strange then that the Republican Party’s platform would pay such special attention to a looming threat of electromagnetic Armageddon.
But it’s not so surprising. In Washington, there is a constellation of right-leaning think tanks, political lobby groups and conferences that have — for a variety of reasons — promoted the EMP threat, often emphasizing the possibility that North Korea or Iran could wipe out America in a single blow.
“You have this strange cottage industry that’s been trying to profit off of it,” Singer said. “The reason it has this cult around it is that it brings together these attractive scenarios that then they get to talk about,” Singer told me.
“It’s post war, the electronics are down — but the guns still work.”
The influence of the Beltway-oriented conferences has extended to popular culture. In 2011, video game publisher THQ released Homefront, a game where North Korea uses an EMP to weaken America and invade it. Players work with the resistance to drive out the invaders.
Novelist William Forstchen, described as a noted EMP expert, showed up at an event to help promote the game and talked to a reporter from The Escapist.
“Most Americans don’t realize EMP is real,” Forstchen began. “Ninety percent of all Americans would die a year after an EMP event. Because it blows out the power structure of the entire United States leaving us wide open for a reality like in the game Homefront.”
Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, who advised Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, made similar claims at the 2009 EMPACT America conference that 90 percent of Americans would die in an EMP attack
“That would be a world without America, as a practical matter,” Gaffney said. “And that is exactly what I believe the Iranians are working towards.”
Forstchen has also produced video game novelizations and the historical fiction novel Days of Infamy, co-authored with Newt Gingrich — the most prominent advocate of EMP awareness. “This could be the kind of catastrophe that ends civilization — and that’s not an exaggeration,” Gingrich said in 2013.
This is not to reject every concern about EMPs. It’s still a good idea to harden the electrical grid and stockpile transformers … because of the sun. In The Space Review, Butt noted that “it is virtually guaranteed that a powerful geomagnetic storm, capable of knocking out a significant section of the U.S. electrical grid, will occur within the next few decades.”
“Historically large storms have a potential to cause power grid blackouts and transformer damage of unprecedented proportions, long-term blackouts, and lengthy restoration times, and chronic shortages for multiple years are possible.”